Bio-Inspired Design Q&A

© johann35 - Fotolia.comAlthough our designs have been inspired by nature for millennia, the discipline of bio-inspired design itself is relatively new.  We do not have sufficient examples to develop reliable, efficient and effective processes, nor do we have a general theory that links the domains of biology with those of technology (Vincent, Biomimetics: its practice and theory).  Although we currently have a surplus of questions, the combined knowledge and expertise of the BID Community can help explore the issues and find answers.  Please 'pitch in' using the forums linked to each question! 

Where does BID deliver the greatest value?

Bio-inspired design case studies range from materials (Velcro, gecko tape, Lotusan, Mirasol display) to biomechanics-morphology (tidal power, whale power, PAX Streamlining Principle, insect-like locomotion) and processes/systems (Todd's Living Machines, industrial ecology, swarm-based decision making).  Recent developments where bio-inspired design shows potential for significant benefits include:

Biological systems typically need to deal with greater variability due to fluctuations in biochemical parameters and reduced control over the environment (compared to engineered systems).  A greater understanding of resilience and adaptability in biological systems may help us improve the robustness of our systems. 

Some questions for discussion in the Application Areas forum:

  • In what areas does bio-inspired design show significant benefits over other methods?
  • What are the characteristics of problems that are particularly suited to bio-inspired design?
  • In what ways does bio-inspired design add value?
  • What developments are in the pipeline that might open up additional application areas?


Are there fundamental differences between emulating at the form, process and system levels?

Forms in nature can often be directly emulated, although even in this case strict emulation is rarely desirable.  Emulating process can be more challenging: although we can learn much from communication and decision making in social insects like honeybees, it does not make sense to emulate the exact details of their dance.  The same issues arise when emulating systems: it would not be practical to develop an industrial ecology based on how animals metabolize food or eliminate waste.  In addition, it is rarely possible to emulate all aspects of a system, even if we have a good understanding of all the components and their interaction.

Some questions for discussion in the Emulation Levels forum:

  • Are different methods/processes required for each level of emulation?
  • What aspects of nature should we be trying to emulate at each level?
  • Do the different levels of emulation require different thinking process to understand and apply the appropriate principles?


How can we bridge differences in culture and language?

The benefits of inter-disciplinary collaboration are clear, but the mechanics can be challenging.  Different disciplines have different ways of making sense of the world.  Even the terminology can stand in the way.  Some questions for discussion in the Bridging Differences forum:

  • How can we facilitate communication and collaboration across disciplines?
  • How can we facilitate the transfer of knowledge between academics and practitioners?
  • What common thought processes might be useful as a way to build bridges?


What are the inhibitors to success?

Some questions for discussion in the Inhibitors to Success forum:

  • How can we overcome the lack of 'hard' data?  This appears to be a particular problem in ecological networks.
  • How can we deal with differences in constraints or problem-solving mapping?  Ant navigation tactics may not work for the travelling salesman problem because the goals are different.  Self-organizing systems often involve organisms that are highly related, a characteristics not usually found in human societies.
  • How do we achieve a consensus on underlying principles, such as those relating to ecological systems?
  • How do we bridge differences in the metrics used to analyze biological systems compared to the human analogy?  Linkage characters are a key metric for analyzing ecological networks, while industrial networks minimize energy/waste or maximize profits.


Is there a theory underlying bio-inspired design?

Julian Vincent's Royal Society paper Biomimetics: its practice and theory argues that biomimetics lacks a theory which allows for a well-defined, repeated process for transferring knowledge between biological and technology in the sense of determining which subject areas or principles may be successfully applied.  On the other hand, bio-inspired design involves analogical reasoning and the construction of cross domain analogies.  There is a considerable amount of cognitive science research on how people do this and some hypotheses about the thinking process. 

Some questions for discussion in the Theory of BID forum:

  • What might a theory of bio-inspired design look like?  Although much attention has been directed to process issues, a 'content theory' as described in The Ontology of Functions (special issue of the Applied Ontology Journal, subscription required) may also be important.
  • What parts of such a theory exist, and where are the significant gaps?
  • What groups are contributing to a greater understanding of the fundamental issues?


'Deep Patterns' and Design

Janine Benyus has often talked about 'deep patterns' in nature, typically in the context of the Life's Principles as described in Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and the revised 2008 'butterfly' version.  The Life's Principles appear to be most often used as a qualitative evaluation tool at the end of the design cycle, although the Biomimicry Guild is extending their application to other parts of the design cycle.  David Oakey applied the 'diversity' principle in his work on the Entropy carpet tile as described in Biomimicry Case Study - the Story of Entropy (page 7 of the December 2005 Biomimicry Newsletter).  The Ecological Performance Standards could be another 'up front' application.

Some questions for discussion in the 'Deep Patterns' and Design forum:

  • How do we search for 'deep patterns' that reveal underlying generalities without imposing our own biases on nature? 
  • What 'deep patterns' are particularly useful in the various phases of the design process?
  • What additional information do designers need to effectively utilize 'deep patterns'?
  • Some of the Life's Principles reflect underlying natural limits.  Can limits be turned into an enabling force that encourages creativity?


What is the relationship between BID and sustainability?

Many argue that nature and sustainability are inseparable, and therefore solutions emulating nature must also be sustainable.  The implication is that sustainability is a fitness factor that can be selected for at the organism level.  On the other hand, sustainability may be a systems property that cannot be directly predicted based on the attributes of components.  Emulating a form process or system in a different context may not carry with it the desired sustainability characteristics, and could even result in undesirable behavior.  Controversy over biofuels, particularly (but not limited to) corn-based ethanol, demonstrates the difficulty of predicting results when a process or device is 'translated' from one complex system to another.

Some questions for discussion in the BID and Sustainability forum: 

  • Should we limit ourselves to bio-inspired designs where sustainability is a clear outcome?
  • Should sustainability and environmental responsibility be goals that are outside of any specific design process?
  • Are there principles underlying sustainability in nature that can be applied in design?


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